I Am Sam

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Movie Review by Alice Castle

Starring: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Doug Hutchison, Stanley DeSantis
Director: Jessie Nelson

Sam has a McJob at Starbucks, a nice group of friends, a small but comfortable one bedroom flat in a decent part of town, a love for the Beatles and a brand new baby. He’s also got the mental age of seven – and is bringing up his young daughter Lucy (in the sky with) Diamond on his own after her mother, a young homeless woman who shacked up with him for a while, left him holding the baby the moment they left the hospital. ‘I am Sam’ could be distilled into the immortal words ‘Love is all you need’ – a tale of responsibility, good parenting and state vs personal freedom. It focuses on the bond between father and daughter – the twist being that daughter has overtaken father mentally before she has even reached the age of eight.

In modern western thinking – the good of the child is always the deciding factor in any legal battle over who has custody. In Sam’s case, social workers are alerted after Lucy paints a picture of ‘her family’ at school which portrays her as the parent and Sam as the little boy. It seems that she has been deliberately stunting her educational development because she doesn’t want to belittle her father – and the authorities are concerned. Lucy is removed from home and here begins Sam’s battle to win her back – with the help of a hot-shot lawyer played by Michelle Pfeiffer – chosen by Sam because her ad is the prettiest in the yellow pages and her name is Rita (lovely Rita, meter-maid) Harrison (George ‘incidentally’ is also her favourite Beatle).

Harrison (Pfeiffer) is a professional power-house, the lawyer that always wins, she’s also a neglectful parent and a horrendous boss. Despite her perfectly controlled exterior she’s soft inside and hates herself because her nine year old son hates her guts. Shamed into taking Sam’s case on pro bono (free – in Latin legal jargon apparently) because she doesn’t want to look nasty in front of her colleagues, Harrison is eventually won over by Sam’s story and fights to win Lucy back learning a lot about parenting in the process.

Superb acting all round. Sean Penn (nominated to win the Oscar) plays an utterly convincing Sam – following the tradition of Hoffman as an autistic in RAIN MAN and Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump – both winners in recent years. As a mental seven year-old he thrives on routine, needing to eat the same meal every Wednesday in the same restaurant, have weekly video and karaoke nights with his friends and with autistic tendencies makes the perfect Starbucks employee (I did wonder how much the firm might have paid the producers to be portrayed as the caring employer in this film). Lucy (played by newcomer Dakota Fanning) is such a frighteningly good actress at the age of seven it’s almost spooky. In the production notes it reports that she often asked the director if she could re-shoot scenes because she thought she could give just a little bit more. Both Penn and Fanning have relatives with learning disabilities and their familiarity with the issues shine through.

4 out of 6 stars